26 July 2015

Pilatus again, with some unexpected challenges…

Time: 5.5 hours
Grading: T3+
Height gain: 1340 metres
Height loss: 950 metres

Eigenthal – Ober Lauelen - Klimsen – Pilatus – Klimsen – Fräkmüntegg

After our walk over the Chasseron a few weeks ago, my friend from Neuchâtel and I agreed that we should meet up again before we both went off for our summer holidays, with me organising something in the Lucerne area this time. The Pilatus seems an obvious choice, with it being so quickly accessible and offering so many different routes up and down.

The day starts with a mad dash to get the bus to Eigenthal. My friend’s train from Olten arrives four minutes late, meaning that we only have one minute to run to the bus, which inevitably is waiting at the furthest end of the bus station. We make it just as the driver is starting the engine; it was a very close thing.

At Eigenthal, where we get off the bus at 9:45, it’s pleasantly cool. The heatwave of the last few weeks has finally subsided, giving way to more changeable, rather windy weather, but still with perfect temperatures for walking. Rain is forecast for later in the day, but the satellite animation on the weather site seems to indicate that we should be OK until at least five in the afternoon, by which time we should have reached the post-hike beer stage of the day.

All very lush and green at the start of the walk
The walk starts gently uphill, with pretty views through openings in the trees down to the valley bottom and the hills on its far side. My friend is surprised by how green everything is here; in Neuchâtel, she tells me, everything has been parched brown for weeks now. Maybe there is just more general humidity in the air here; we certainly have not had much rain to speak of over the last month.

Beyond the saddle of Chraigütsch, the path begins to climb more steeply up onto the wooded ridge of the Höchberg. The views become rarer along this section, and each time there is an opening in the trees, the dark cliffs of the Pilatus up ahead have become closer. Bands of dark grey clouds are coming and going across the cliff face; there is a distinct possibility that we may find ourselves walking in fog higher up. We see few other walkers, but there are people here and there, off to the side of the path, looking for berries in the undergrowth. The path levels out for a while, drops down a bit, climbs a bit more, crosses a more open and marshy area where white cotton grass is blowing in the wind, then drops down to the attractively-situated Alpine farm of Ober Lauelen, at 1332 metres above sea level.

In the forest approaching Ober Lauelen
After Ober Lauelen, the character of what has so far been a gentle stroll changes dramatically. For the next hour, we climb very steeply up a narrow, sometimes slightly exposed path in the shadow of looming cliffs and scree slopes. I have done this part of the walk before, but the path is interesting and I am quite happy to walk it again. There are more people around now, many of whom are climbing faster than us. Being still a fair way off my full “summer fitness”, I am glad of the opportunity to rest which is offered by stopping to let others overtake us. Finally we make it to the saddle below the Klimsenhorn, with its whitewashed chapel and panoramic views down towards the lake… except that the constantly moving cloud never quite allows us to see the view in all its glory. We have climbed about 900 metres in a little more than two and a half hours, which is not bad going at all.

We have a slightly chilly lunch sitting on one of the wooden benches in front of the chapel. The sun has hidden itself behind the thickening cloud and it is quite windy here; for the first time in what seems like months, I put on a fleece… albeit only a very thin, lightweight one. With the renewed energy brought on by salami and sandwiches, we set off again for the final 200 metres to the top, up a broad path that zigzags steeply up through bands of shaly rock. As we near the top, we pass more and more people whose shoes and clothing are totally unadapted to the terrain; presumably tourists who have come up the mountain by train and decided to walk down “because it’s easier that way”. I wonder how many of them make it all the way down and how many give up and turn back after ten minutes.

Looking down on Lake Lucerne from the Klimsen saddle
We arrive at Pilatus-Kulm by a tunnel that has been dug into the rock, with large openings giving views that plunge steeply down the pastures below, with the town of Lucerne and the lake beyond. This tunnel ends abruptly, and rather disconcertingly, emerging into tourist paradise between a self-service restaurant and a band that is playing folksy Alpine tunes for the crowds.

Out in the fresh air again, we spend a pleasant half hour on the rather windy terrace of the Pilatus Kulm hotel, where every table is occupied by little groups of walkers huddled in fleeces, or by tourists who look like they wished they were also huddled in fleeces. I order an ice cream and am a bit shocked to pay 7 CHF for two balls of sorbet… but maybe I have unrealistic expectations, it's probably a bit unfair to compare Pilatus Kulm with the Italian ice-cream stall outside the office canteen, where the same thing costs only a quarter the price.

Now we have to decide how we go back down. There are all sorts of options available, ranging from the zero-effort cogwheel train to the full-blown 1600 metres of descent down to the lake at Alpnachstad. Been there, done that, my knees are still complaining, so I rule that one out immediately. In the end, we agree on a route that I have not done before, which will take us down to Fräkmüntegg, then eventually back to our starting point at Eigenthal. We retrace our steps back down to the Klimsen saddle and its chapel, and then set off down a stony path signposted to Fräkmüntegg.

For some reason, I expect this path to be easy… how wrong I am! At first, it is indeed easy enough, if not really comfortable underfoot. The path zigzags down beneath high, black cliffs, following the bottom of a steep scree gully. The scree is too big to run down, but not big enough to be stable underfoot, and, with the gradient consistently steep, progress is rather awkward. Up above on a rocky bluff, the pylon of the cable car that runs up from Fräkmüntegg to Pilatus Kulm seems to be standing at an insane angle, almost 45 degrees to the vertical at a guess. It looks impossible, but presumably this is the angle that gives the most resistance to the stress of the passing cabins which glide soundlessly overhead every five or six minutes.

We reach the bottom of the scree and slightly flatter ground, where I can see the path running harmlessly off eastwards across grassy slopes. It looks like we have reached easier ground… except that this is not our path! We reach a junction, where a signpost points us off in the opposite direction from the nicely enticing route that we have been looking at.

"We don't really want to do this, do we?"... one of the most exposed passages
Immediately, things become much more serious. Now following the western side of the valley, the path climbs up onto a rocky ledge which traverses above a stone-chocked dry stream bed. It is very narrow, somewhat exposed (although the drop is not very large), and there is nothing to hold on to except bushes. I take a couple of steps out onto the ledge, decide that I don't like it very much and reverse clumsily back onto more stable ground. But I have spotted a workaround: by scrambling down into the gully and out again on the other side, I can avoid the obstacle. Meanwhile, my friend skips across the ledge as though it was a football pitch. Two walkers arrive from the opposite direction and, expecting a reassuring answer, I ask them if there are any other exposed or difficult passages. I do not get the hoped-for answer: yes, says the man, there are; you have to do a bit of climbing, the worst bit is right at the end.

I give my friend an imploring, "we don't really want to do this, do we?" look. After all, if we get all the way to "the worst bit" and have to turn back, we will have wasted a lot of time and energy that could be spent enjoying a cold beer. But she does not seem to be very well trained in interpreting imploring looks (I will have to work on this), and says something like "Right, shall we give it a go?" To which there is not much to answer.

In the end, it turns out to be fun. There are indeed many exposed sections as the path, very narrow, twists its way down through bands of rock towards the pastures below, tantalizingly close but at the same time still a long way off. There are many places where we have to scramble down steep rocky steps of ten metres high or more. However, almost all the potentially dangerous places are well secured with fixed cables, and as I progress, I gradually get the hang of it. In places, I scramble down on my backside, in others it's easier to go down backwards, holding on to the cable and seeking out footholds below. My friend, who has sensibly taken the lead, goes down first and then, where necessary, tells me the best holds on which to place my feet. My long legs are a definite advantage, it has to be said. Even in these dry conditions, the rock is slippery, and I would definitely not advise anyone to try this path on a rainy day. It would also be much easier in the opposite direction, as all the most difficult parts would then be tackled uphill rather than down. By the time we come to a second, much more exposed ledge with no securing cable, I am well into my stride and am able to make the three or four exposed steps with only a little hesitation. 

The photo doesn't really do justice... this is almost vertical.

After almost an hour of intense concentration, my leg-muscles are starting to tremble, and I am still nervous about the inevitable "worst bit" that must still be to come. The path flattens out and disappears round a bend… surely this must be the terrible place, as we are almost down to the level of the fields. But no, around the bend there is a bench, and a place where people have clearly been barbecuing… and then the path runs out into gently sloping Alpine pastures, with the sound of Alphorns wafting over from the restaurant at Fräkmüntegg. The "worst bit" is behind us without us even having noticed it. I am, of course, extremely grateful towards my friend for persuading me not to turn back; it's the kind of route that I would never have attempted on my own and which, as a mostly solo walker, I do not get many opportunities to test myself against.

By the time we get to Fräkmüntegg, it is a quarter to four and the sky has turned dark. I reckon it will take us another hour and a half to get back to Eigenthal, and that we risk a) getting wet and b) missing the 17:15 bus. Getting wet would not really matter, but missing the bus would mean a very late arrival home for my Neuchâtel-based friend, so instead we join the long queue of tourists, walkers and families who are waiting for the gondola down to Kriens. We board the gondola just as the first spots of rain start to fall, travelling slowly down as mountain bikers labour up the gravelly roads beneath us. In Kriens we change to the number 1 bus, which brings us to Lucerne train station a perfect eight minutes before my friend's train is due to leave. It has been a day of good company and unexpected challenges, which I managed to overcome: an altogether rewarding day on the Pilatus.

Back on solid ground at Fräkmüntegg

12 July 2015

On and around the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 6, from Amden to Walenstadt

Time: 5.5 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 1080 metres
Height loss: 1560 metres

Amden – Betlis – Quinten - Walenstadt

At the end of my previous post, I said that the next few stages of the Alpine Panorama Trail did not really inspire me, and that I would be looking for alternative routes. The seeds of an idea are planted in my mind by a colleague who wants me to join her for a walk along the north side of the Walensee. It's a hike that I have done before, but I am happy to do it again, and it gives me a plan for the next few stages: a complete walk round the Walensee, then over to the Klöntal and onwards to the Muotatal, skirting round the Mythens and finally over the Rigi to rejoin the main route at Lucerne. It's not exactly the most direct route, and walking from Amden to Walenstadt will actually take me further away from my ultimate destination, but why not after all…

Another very hot day is forecast, and in order to have an early start without having to get up at the crack of dawn, we decide to go to Amden by car. It means we will have to get back there from Walenstadt by train and bus at the end of the walk, but we gain a good hour overall. My car appreciates the airing as well; it's only about the fourth time it has been allowed out of the garage since Christmas!

The Walensee walk is normally done from Weesen to Walenstadt or vice-versa, but so as to keep the continuity of my longer route, I insist on us starting from Amden, 500 metres higher up on the sunny, south-facing hillside above the lake. It means that the hike starts with a substantial descent, but it proves to be a good choice as the scenery is very pretty indeed. As we descend steeply, first on a minor road, then on grassy paths, we look out across foreground fields and red-roofed barns towards the higher hills on the far side of the lake, dominated by the 2441-metre Mürchtenstock. The path drops down into an unexpectedly deep gorge, crossing the stream at its bottom on a footbridge before climbing back up below dark, grey cliffs. Back out in the sunlight, the descent continues down a pretty path between dry-stone walls, an old mule track by the look of it, with time-worn, overgrown paving stones underfoot.

Looking across to the Mürchtenstock from Amden
A long section in woodland brings some welcome respite from the direct sunlight; it may only be ten in the morning but the temperature is already making fast progress towards the 30 degree mark. Occasional breaks in the trees open up vertiginous views down to the lake, 250 very steep metres below. The unexpected but unmistakable call of peacocks signals the presence of civilisation and the end of this long, steep descent. We emerge onto a little lane by a restaurant bearing the name of Paradiesli (little paradise): most appropriate given the tranquil setting and the lovely views. There are indeed peacocks in paradise; two of them, in a large compound across the lane from the restaurant.

Here we rejoin the main path that comes up from Weesen; the rest of the walk is familiar territory and already described on this site, so I will not go into great detail in describing it again. We make the short detour to the Seerenbachfälle, so impressive when I was last here two years ago and, I assure my friend, well worth the extra 15 minutes' walk. But we are disappointed: the falls have completely dried up, and only damp patches on the cliffs high above show where the water would have been rushing down were we not in the middle of a heatwave. The route is very popular; we pass a constant stream of walkers coming the other way, and are continually overtaking or being overtaken by others going in the same direction as us. Many of them look to be suffering from the heat, and look every bit as hot and sweaty as I feel. Others appear to be perfectly fresh, as though they had just stepped out of their morning shower; how they manage this in such hot conditions I have no idea… I just know it's unfair. 

The relative coolness of the shady sections is most welcome
Having dropped down from an altitude of 900 metres at Amden to 499 below the Seerenbach waterfall, the path now climbs, in fits and starts, back up to 600 metres, before dropping down to Quinten on the lakeside at 400. This descent is steep and rocky; the path picks its way between cliffs and slightly exposed in places though handrails and metal chains ensure that there would be no danger in the event of a slip.

We reach Quinten at lunchtime, having been walking for a little less than three hours. The tiny village, inaccessible except on foot or by boat, enjoys a particularly sunny location and has an almost Provençal feel to it, with palms and banana trees in the gardens, and hollyhocks growing up the walls of the houses and barns. We stop for a beer and a plate of cold meat at one of the two restaurants there, leaving again for the second half of the walk at half past twelve. For a while now, the path stays closer to the shore of the lake; occasionally climbing up a few dozen metres, then dropping back down to the lakeside again. From down below, the sound of people splashing in the water and the smell of grilling meat waft up. 

Now for the day's physical challenge: having descended one last time to the lakeside, the path begins the 400-metre climb up to Garadur and Engen. It's steep, I have warned my friend, remembering it having been a knee-crunching descent when doing the walk in the opposite direction. She has a tendency to walk fast and not to slow down when going uphill; in this heat, this is something that I cannot do, so I go in front and set a nice, slow pace. We have 400 metres to climb, it's going to take an hour. The path zigzags up through trees, occasionally breaking out into clearings which bring false hope that we have reached the top. After about 40 minutes we stop to drink and munch a few nuts, then continue up further zigzags until finally, exactly one hour after starting the climb, we reach open, flatter ground. Above us, the sheer, rocky faces of the Churfirsten rear hugely up into the blue sky. 

The Churfirsten seen from Engen
Having reached the heady altitude of 833 metres, the only way is down… this walk is very much about ups and downs. This last downhill stretch is a long one, all the way back down to lake level along a gravelly, not particularly interesting forest track. A bit more than two and a half hours after leaving Quinten, we make it to the beach at Walenstadt, where hundreds of people are sunbathing, swimming, barbecuing and drinking beer in the hot sun. It's a further 20 minutes' walk to the station, and to a welcome ice-cream while waiting for the train.

A short train ride to Ziegelbrücke, a perfect connection to the bus, and 40 minutes later we are back at Amden, our starting point. We drive back down to the valley and the motorway… the thermometer in the car tells us that the outside temperature is 31.5 degrees. Thankfully, it has been a largely shady walk!

05 July 2015

Too hot for the Faulhorn

Time: 3 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 570 metres
Height loss: 570 metres

Schynige Platte – Oberberghorn – Laucheren - Schynige Platte

I don't think I really realized how hot it was until Saturday. Leaving home early in the morning, working in air-conditioned offices and coming home to a shady, east-facing balcony in the evening, I had been spared from the worst of it. Until Saturday, when it suddenly hit me.

With an even hotter Sunday expected, the only way out seems to be upwards, and I look for a hike that will enable me to start from 2,000 metres or higher, with no physical effort needed to get to that starting altitude. The Faulhorn seems like a good option: the classic route – which I already walked some ten years ago – starts from just below 2,000 metres, then climbs in a not too strenuous manner up to the summit at 2,600. Surely at that kind of altitude, the temperature will be more bearable…

I get up very early, and by 7 o'clock am on the train. It's a long way to the walk's starting point at Schynige Platte though, and it's 10:30 before I am ready to start walking. Interlaken Ost station is crowded with Chinese and Japanese tourists, but strangely, none of them change to the Schynige Platte train at Wilderswil. Pretty much everyone on the little cogwheel train, which crawls up the mountainside at walking pace, is either American, British, Swiss or French. It's really odd how, in the same valley, whole nations of tourists flock to certain sights, but totally ignore others that are only a few miles away.

The Lauterbrunnen valley seen from Schynige Platte
The walk starts easily enough. From the station at Schynige Platte, the path, marked as "Panoramaweg", initially runs round the northern side of a rocky tower, the Gumihorn. In the shade below the cliffs, the heat is very definitely bearable; I seem to have made a good choice. Even so, I still think that the two trail-runners who puff and pant past me are slightly mad… And it's not long before I begin to question my own sanity, as the path leaves the shade and begins to climb simultaneously. It is very, very hot indeed.

I reach the day's first mini-summit, marked on the map as Tuba and on the signposts as Daube. Either way, its altitude is 2067 metres, and the view in all directions is superb. To the north, the mountain drops away precipitously to the turquoise waters of the Brienzersee. Southwards and eastwards things are less abrupt, with undulating green pastures that draw the eye towards the most majestic of horizons: Eiger, Mönch, Jungfrau, Schreckhorn are all lined up there, the view only marginally spoiled by a fairly thick heat haze. To the west, the Niesen and Stockhorn poke up in the distance like long-lost, half-forgotten friends: it's been a long time since I was in this part of the country.

From Tuba, the path heads off north-eastwards down a fairly narrow ridge. I would not call it vertiginous by any means, but there is a drop on both sides, and the drop to the left is vertical. However, the path keeps slightly below the crest of the ridge on the somewhat gentler southern side. Now, the next objective appears; the rocky, seemingly unassailable Oberberghorn. The closer it gets, the more intimidating it looks, until all is revealed… there are stairs to the top! Leaving the main path, I zigzag up a stony slope to the foot of a great cleft in the face of the mountain. Three flights of steep wooden stairs have been built into this cleft, enabling mere walkers like me to reach the 2,069-metre summit above. A German woman is coming down the stairs very slowly, clearly terrified, being either encouraged or pestered by her companion, according to your point of view. And although the stairs are no steeper than those leading to the dormitory of many an Alpine Club hut, an added challenge is given by the fact that the wooden handrails have become separated from their posts, and wobble wildly when I try to use them to haul myself up. They certainly would not be of much help if used to try to arrest a fall… someone needs to get up to the Oberberghorn with a hammer and nails!

The apparently unassailable Oberberghorn
The stairs exhaust me, and I reach the summit drained of energy; the heat is really taking its toll. I have brought three litres of water with me, and after an hour's walking have already made good progress in terms of emptying the first 1.5 litre bottle. I go back down the stairs and zigzags to the main path, which now continues more or less level, climbing gently along the flank of a lovely little valley. The view south-westwards is particularly nice here, looking out across a carpet of yellow flowers, then over the roofs of the farm buildings of Oberberg to the mighty peaks on the horizon.

Looking back to the Oberberghorn and onwards to the south-west
Another staircase, solid metal this time, brings me to a junction of several paths at Laucheren. Here, a signpost tells me that it is three and a half hours to the Faulhorn, and five hours to the cable car station at First, the endpoint of the walk. It's already midday; the panoramic detour to the Tuba and Oberberghorn have cost me an hour, and I start to resign myself to the fact that I will not finish the walk. It would mean pushing myself to be sure of not missing the last cable car, and frankly, in these conditions, I am physically not capable of increasing my pace. Every little uphill section is sweaty torture; my body feels heavy, like a dead weight.

There are numerous walkers on the path, and everywhere, groups of people are seeking out the tiniest bush or overhand, desperately looking for half a square metre of shade to eat their lunch. I carry on for a bit, pass a little saddle where a big group of English-speaking walkers is eating, then drop down into a stony valley and struggle back up again to a notch in the next ridge, marked on the map as Güwtürli, 2028 m. Here, there is a little bit of shade; not enough to stretch out in, but at least sufficient for me to eat my lunch leaning against a rock, in the company of two other walkers who were on the same train as me up from Wilderswil. All the time, as I eat, walkers continue to pass by in twos, threes and bigger groups, including some very young children. They all seem less affected by the heat than me.

Two views of the Schreckhorn
I finish eating at one o'clock, and decide to turn back. Apart from anything else, the sky is starting to take on an ominous, greyish-purple colour, and the grey is advancing very fast. The last thing I want is to have to force the pace to escape from a thunderstorm, and I suspect that those who have continued for the full five hours will end up wet. I retrace my steps to Laucheren, then take the more direct, lower level path back to Schnynige Platte, which I reach at about a quarter to three. I have just missed a train, which gives me a good excuse for a refreshing beer in the shade while waiting for the next one. By the time I get home, I will have drunk a total of three and a half litres without needing to pass water… why can't it be like that in the pub in the evening?

As the train leaves for its slow journey back to the valley, it starts to rain. The shower doesn't last long, but everyone in the train looks at it in wonder, as though a miracle has happened. I get talking to an English couple, who are camping in Interlaken. They arrived here on the first day of the heatwave, totally unequipped for it, having packed all the usual things that you would pack for early summer hiking at 2,500 metres: fleeces, waterproofs, warm jackets and so on.

The Bernese royal family: Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau
Back at Interlaken Ost, where I have to wait half an hour between trains, a large group of about 20 Japanese tourists is being made by their tour guide to line up on the platform, two by two, like primary school children. One of the group, a young woman, is wearing a T-shirt that bears the message "MERRY CHRISTMAS". On what must be the hottest day for ten years, this must surely qualify as ironic humour… and I have to feel sorry for Santa, with his heavy fur coat and bushy beard!

29 June 2015

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 5, from Stein to Amden

Time: 5 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 1050 metres
Height loss: 1000 metres

Stein – Vorder Höhi – Gulmen – Hinter Höhi – Niederschlag - Amden

For the last time, I make the long, almost three-hour journey to eastern Switzerland. The starting point of subsequent stages of my walk from Lake Constance to Lake Geneva will be closer to home, for which I will be thankful. It’s worth the early start and the long train ride though, as today’s walk is superb from start to finish.

Some fairly extreme temperatures are forecast for the coming days, but at 10:15 on Sunday morning in Stein, the weather is perfect for walking, with a mostly clear sky and just a few cumulus clouds to break up the uniformity of the blue. I fill up my water bottles from a fountain in the village centre, then set off slowly up a lane that climbs gently southwards, heading towards the rocky bumps of the Goggeien, which border the right-hand edge the Dürrenbach valley. Looking back, the view gradually opens up towards the Risipass, over which I struggled in a heatwave on the previous stage. The pass looks very low and easy from here, and the sight of it makes me all the more puzzled as to how exhausted it left me three weekends ago.

Very soon, at a bend in the lane, a path strikes off to the left, towards the Dürrenbach stream that runs down the centre of the valley. The valley bottom is wooded, and although the gradient now steepens, the shade takes the edge off the heat and makes for pleasant walking. The only annoying factor is the presence (surprisingly, as there are no cows in the immediate vicinity) of numerous horseflies, which home in on me every time I try to stop to take a photo or drink. I suspect I will be covered in itching bumps tomorrow, and this proves to be the case: something even managed to get inside one of my socks and bite me on the ankle. The path climbs alongside the stream, which runs prettily over a series of waterfalls. Although these are clearly man-made, they blend in very well with the landscape, being constructed from big blocks of weathered, moss-covered stone that look like they have been here for a long time. After a while, the official National Route No.3 waymarking leaves the stream, veering off to the right into fields. I decide to carry on up the riverside path though, preferring to stay in the shade. 

One of the many little waterfalls on the climb from Stein
I reach the top of the waterfalls at a farm marked on the map as Badhus, at an altitude of 1194 metres, where there are no bathing-huts to be seen despite the name. I am satisfied with my progress; I have already gained almost 400 metres in a little over an hour. Gradually the landscape changes, with the forest giving way to more open meadows and occasional thickets of trees. The gradient, which has been fairly constant ever since the start of the walk, now eases off, with a succession of flatter sections and short climbs making for easy walking. The Säntis range, which has been completely invisible so far today, now appears to the north-east, already a surprising distance away considering that I was right at its foot on the previous stage of the walk. 

View back to the Säntis from Schönenboden
At Schönenboden, a grassy pasture with the cliffs of the Gulmen’s northern side for a backdrop, I stop for twenty minutes to sketch the view backwards towards the Säntis and the Stockberg. From here, a new feature of the landscape is the long chain of the Churfirsten, a line of wedge-like peaks that slope up from the Toggenburg valley on this side, before falling away vertically towards the Walensee on their southern side. The effect seen from here is one of a long wave, about to break on a beach.

The Churfirsten seen from Schönenboden
It is only a short climb from Schönenboden to Vorder Höhi, a broad pass at 1537 metres between the Gulmen and the western end of the Churfirsten range, where I arrive after about two hours’ walking. There are several farm buildings at the top of the pass, and quite a few people as well, as several paths converge here. There are new views too; the panorama southwards includes all the mountains of the Glarnerland beyond the Linth valley. Most prominent of them is the Mürchtenstock immediately opposite, imposing despite its relatively low altitude of 2441 metres. A little further away is the much larger mass of the Glärnisch range, its summits half-hidden in the clouds. Further to my left, clouds are also puffing up above the Churfirsten, creating a constantly-changing play of light and shadow across their steep slopes.

I have lunch here, sitting on a wooden bench looking southwards. A small herd of light-brown goats comes and keeps me company, munching away at the grass around me but thankfully paying no attention whatsoever to my sandwiches. The changing light over the Churfirsten encourages me to do another sketch, as a result of which it is half past one by the time I am ready to set off again.

The Churfirsten seen from Vorder Höhi
From my lunch spot, the route of the Alpine Panorama Trail skirts round the southern side of the Gulmen, which seems a bit of a shame. The summit is only a couple of hundred metres above, and is crossed by what looks like an easy path which climbs from Vorder Höhi, then descends to rejoin the main route on the far side of the hill. Although the detour adds an hour or so to the overall length of the walk, it is a variant which I would definitely recommend. Quite a few people seem to be heading up that way and, after packing up my stuff, I follow them. It’s an easy path, steep but not uncomfortably so. The lower part of the path is hard-packed gravel, which very abruptly gives way to pathless pasture after a while. What seems to be the summit appears ahead; a rocky hump that looks like it may involve some scrambling to reach. It turns out not to be the summit though, just an outcrop which the path bypasses easily to the right. A short distance further on, the real top does appear; a broad, grassy slope of a summit with a farm chalet a short distance below the highest point. A Canadian flag flying from a flagpole in front of the chalet adds an exotic touch. 

The view from the 1789-metre summit of the Gulmen is extensive in every direction, although the higher mountains in the southern distance are hidden by a mixture of cloud and heat-haze. The new feature of the view from here is the turquoise water of the Walensee, which now appears far below to the south-west. I settle down for a most enjoyable twenty-minute siesta in the grass just below the summit, while occasional walkers – including several family groups with children – pass by.

Approaching the summit of the Gulmen
The view from the summit of the Gulmen is well worth the climb
The way off the Gulmen on its south-eastern side is considerably steeper than the path up from Vorder Höhi. A narrow path twists and turns down the grassy spur that heads from the summit directly towards the Walensee and the village of Amden below. The path does not make for comfortable going: the hard-baked earth is crumbly and slippery, and the numerous big steps and stones make this potential ankle-spraining territory. This is the only part of today’s walk where good footwear would be really essential. The rather awkward ground underfoot is largely compensated by the views though, and also by the abundant and varied Alpine flowers that are on display. Eventually, at the chalet of Hüttlisboden (where warning notices inform walkers that anyone caught washing themselves or their dogs in the cows' drinking trough will be fined), I rejoin the main path that has come round the base of the mountain.

Various Alpine flowers on the Gulmen
From here, the route makes a great detour of some two kilometres northwards, contouring high above a deep, green valley that runs away southwards towards the villages down below. Across the valley, steep grass slopes plunge down from the Mattstock, avalanche protection barriers stretching out across them to preserve the buildings below. I approach the next chalet, Furggelen, to the sound of Alphorns and yodelling, and am a bit miffed when, on getting closer, the music turns out to be coming from the radio. The path now becomes a broad, stony track which swings westwards, then back southwards again as it runs below the Mattstock. Ahead, silhouetted behind a foreground of conifers, the Glarus mountains away beyond the Walensee make for a dramatic backdrop.

Beyond Vorder Höhi, a short stretch of road walking reminds me that this walk has been almost entirely on paths, with almost no hard surfaces at all. This is in contrast to some of the other stages of the Alpine Panorama Trail, and has definitely increased the enjoyment factor of today’s leg. The little road brings me to a mountain restaurant at 1292 metres, from where a chairlift runs down to Amden, the finishing point of the walk. I am tempted to “cheat” and use this chairlift, but I am in much better shape today than I was on the previous stage, and decide to carry on walking down to Amden. It proves to be a good choice, for the scenery continues to be superb right to the end. The path drops quite steeply, first along the edge of a forest, then across fields fragrant with the smell of freshly-cut hay. Picking its way between farms and barns, the path crosses narrow access roads in several places, but manages to avoid actually following any roads until right back in the centre of Amden, an attractively-situated village on a sunny, south-facing slope above the Walensee. I reach the bus stop at half past four, five minutes before the bus is due. This has definitely been the most scenically enjoyable stage of the walk so far.

Descending towards Amden and the Walensee
Now, having completed five stages across territory that was completely new to me, I need to think about where to go next, as the next few stages of the official route do not inspire me at all. From Amden, the Alpine Panorama trail wanders away eastwards along the flat-bottomed Linth valley, then goes over the Chrüzlistock to Einsiedeln and makes a big detour around the northern end of Lakes Zug and Lucerne. The Linth valley with its motorway and main railway line does not inspire me at all, and I have already walked the Chrüzlistock and the area between Einsiedeln and Lucerne. I need to start looking at my maps…

Next stage
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21 June 2015

Over the Chasseron, from the Val de Travers to Ste. Croix

Time: 5 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 900 metres
Height loss: 700 metres

Môtiers – Poëta Raisse – Le Chasseron – Ste. Croix

This weekend, I temporarily abandon my long cross-country walk, giving preference to an invitation from a Neuchâtel-based friend, who has suggested a walk from Môtiers in the Val de Travers, up to the 1607-metre summit of the Chasseron, then down the other side to Ste. Croix above Yverdon. It’s a classic walk in the area, one of the first that I did when I arrived in Switzerland in 1998, but I remember it as an interesting hike and am more than happy to go back and do it again.

Depending on which newspaper or website you read, it’s either the longest day of the year, Midsummer’s Day or the first day of summer. What is beyond any doubt is that it’s raining. It’s raining in Lucerne where I catch the train just before eight in the morning, it’s raining in Olten where I change trains half an hour later, and it’s still raining in Biel where I change again. I remember that on three previous occasions, the weather has forced me to abandon this particular hike, and wonder if today will be the fourth time. But by some miracle, the rain stops two minutes before Neuchâtel, where I change trains for the last time and meet my friend, and it’s even dry up in the hills at Môtiers, where we start walking at about 10:15.

Môtiers is a pretty village, its main street lined with beautiful old houses, all in an architectural style very typical of the area. There is an outdoor art exhibition going on, with various “installations” dotted all over the village, and many of the inhabitants seem to have joined in the spirit of the thing by adding quirky touches of decoration to the outsides of their houses. We wonder how such a sleepy village came to be the location for a resolutely modern art event… maybe the dream of a local eccentric that caught on?

Leaving the village, we enter a dark, rather gloomy forest on a stony track that soon takes us into the mouth of the Poëta Raisse gorge, following the course of a dried-up riverbed. The first time I did the walk, in May 1998, I was shocked and disappointed by this waterless riverbed, especially having walked the rushing Areuse gorge a few weeks previously. But in subsequent years, I have walked this section three or four times, and have never seen the slightest trickle of water in the river here. Higher up the gorge, water does appear – though not in any great quantity – so somewhere along the route it must sink underground. 

After an easy start on broad tracks, beyond a slippery wooden footbridge, the path narrows and begins to climb. The next hour’s walking is constantly uphill, though the gradient is never steep enough to be uncomfortable. Old, weathered stone staircases facilitate the steepest parts, and ancient, rusty handrails offer security where the path underfoot becomes narrow and slippery. The limestone of the Jura always seems to be slippery even in dry conditions, and today it is particularly treacherous going, after quite a bit of recent rain.

The damp, mysterious world of the Poëta Raisse gorge
Finally, the path emerges onto flatter ground, exiting from the gorge through a narrow defile between high cliffs into a green, very overgrown valley. Now running more gently uphill, the path winds its way through this pretty landscape of trees and ferns, before leaving the forest at the alp of La Vaux, where an isolated chalet stands up above a flowery clearing, entirely surrounded by forest. A less interesting climb takes us further up beneath conifers until eventually, at 1400 metres, we leave the woods behind for good and continue into more open country. Scenically, this section is not as attractive as I remembered it; although the summit of the Chasseron now appears up ahead, it is an unspectacular hump seen from this side. Only above the farm of La Grandsonne-Dessus, as we start to climb the grassy, boulder-strewn summit ridge, do the views begin to open up in spectacular fashion on all sides. Down below to our left are the Lac de Neuchâtel and the patchwork of fields stretching away beyond the lakeside town of Yverdon. Behind us, coordinated tones of blue-grey hills fade away eastwards; while to the right, the view reaches way away over the border into France. 

Approaching the summit and its restaurant
Lac de Neuchâtel
The area just before the summit of the Chasseron is inhabited by a large herd of brown and white cows, most of which are standing on the path, as Swiss cows usually do. At 13:35, after a little more than three hours’ walking, we reach the top, at the very precise (according to the map) altitude of 1606.6 metres. It really does not feel that we have climbed so far; the succession of steeper bits and flatter bits makes this a very easy 900 metres of height gain. If the north ridge up we have walked is gentle and grassy, the same cannot be said of the mountain’s east side. From the summit, cliffs plunge a hundred metres vertically down into the deep-cut Vallon des Dénériaz, offering numerous vertiginous viewpoints down to the farms below.

Looking down the precipitous east face
There is a restaurant a few metres below the summit, and although I have brought sandwiches, we decide that lunch inside would be a good idea. Although it has stayed dry, the day is cool and there are some fairly menacing clouds away to the west, over the Aiguilles de Baulmes and the cliffs of the Mont d’Or in the distance. A table by the window is a perfect location for steak, chips and a local amber beer from Ste. Croix, with a panoramic view southwards over the lake towards where the Alps would be if it were not so cloudy. We console ourselves by pretending that the clouds stacked up away to the south are really mountains, and that the slightly whiter cloud over there is probably Mont Blanc.

Menacing clouds away to the west... but it stays dry
We spend a leisurely hour and a quarter sitting there before setting off for the much shorter walk down to Ste. Croix. Up ahead, the clouds continue to look menacing, but their menace is never fulfilled, and as we progress, the sun gradually gets the upper hand. To our right, great flower-choked ravines drop steeply away, while the slopes to the left of the ridge are gentle grass, with several ski-lifts coming up from the village of Les Rasses below. The path drops steeply across fields and forest, bringing us after less than an hour and a half to the little town of Ste. Croix. It’s an odd place; an industrial town plonked down in the middle of nowhere, in a bowl of the land at 1,100 metres above sea level. The town looks to have seen better days, with numerous houses, shops and hotels standing empty and abandoned. The station, by contrast, is well-maintained, its little platform decorated with hanging baskets of flowers and recently repainted. The little train arrives, and is soon carrying us back downhill, making a great detour south-westwards to lose altitude as it snakes across the mountainside, before looping back eastwards to bring us to Yverdon, back down at lake level. Even if the clouds obscured the Alpine views, it has been a real pleasure to reacquaint myself with this little corner of the Neuchâtel and Vaud hills. 

Looking back up to the summit, and the hills to the east

05 June 2015

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 4, from Schwägalp to Stein

Time: 3.75 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 550 metres
Height loss: 1060 metres

Schwägalp – Lutertannen – Risipass - Stein

After three weekends without going to the mountains because of friend and family visits, I resume my Lake Constance to Lake Geneva walk on this long weekend at the start of June. With a public holiday on the Thursday, we have been given Friday off as well, and so it is on a normal working day for most people that I catch the train in Lucerne, in the middle of the morning rush hour. It always feels a bit wrong to me, being on a train in hiking gear when everyone else is going to the office, although in fact on this train, almost everyone seems to be about 20 years older than me, retired people out for the day.

I change from the Voralpen-Express to a local train in Wattwil. This second train is packed full of primary school children; every school in the area seems to have scheduled its summer outing for today. I dread to think what it’s going to be like on the bus from Nesslau up to Schwägalp, but thankfully the school groups – three or four of them – all get on a different bus.

At Schwägalp, despite the altitude of 1352 metres, it is already scorching hot at 10:30 in the morning. Switzerland is experiencing the first heatwave of the summer, with temperatures of 30 degrees and more forecast for today. I find a shady spot and spend a fair bit of time plastering every visible square inch of my body with factor 50 sun cream. I am walking in shorts for the first time this year, and my legs get special attention in the cream department. There is a massive, noisy building site next to the Säntis cable car station, and I waste no time in escaping from the racket as soon as I am satisfied that I have protected myself sufficiently against the sun.

Now I leave the Säntis behind me
Ever since the start of my journey in Rorschach, I have been walking towards the Säntis. Now, for the first time, I turn my back on it. Today’s leg of the walk will be a farewell to these now-familiar mountains and the first sight of new ones. The path leads prettily south-westwards, gently downhill across mountain pastures awash with buttercups and daisies, passing through occasional wooded patches, which give some relief from the sun. I can already tell that the weather is too hot for comfortable walking, and am quite relieved that this is a short day’s walk. I had envisaged some longer variants on the main path today, but in these conditions I decided to stick to the most direct route. Thunderstorms are forecast for this evening, and already cumulus clouds are beginning to puff up above the higher mountains.

A short section of asphalted farm track is followed by more woods and fields, as the path continues to descend almost unnoticeably. The ground is rock hard, the earth marked by the distinctive hoof-prints of a herd of cows that must have been this way during the last rainy spell a few days ago. I am quite glad I am doing this walk now and not a week ago: looking at the state of the ground today, it must have been an absolute swamp last weekend! At Vorder Stelzenboden, I meet the cows in question, as I have to pass right through the middle of the herd. They are much more interested in the lush grass than in me though, and watch uninterestedly as I pass by. Gradually the Säntis recedes behind me, while the view ahead is dominated by the wedge-shaped Stockberg, to the right of the Risipass, which I will have to cross a bit later.

By the time I reach the farm of Lutertannen after an hour and a quarter’s easy walking, I have lost almost 350 metres in altitude without really being aware of it, so gentle was the drop. The farm buildings are set attractively against the rocky backdrop of the Stockberg, with a dry stone wall and a sea of yellow buttercups in the foreground. 

Here begins the day’s only real uphill section, 460 metres of regular ascent to the 1459-metre Risipass. A signpost indicates that it will take me an hour to get to the pass. Annoyingly, the first 250 metres of the climb are on a hard-surfaced farm access road, and the combination of the heat and the asphalt underfoot soon has me grumbling to myself. Had I stuck to my original plan, I would have been setting out from Schwägalp at eight in the morning after an overnight stop there, and would have been able to choose a longer, higher-level route on proper paths rather than this monotonous road. The wonderful view back to the Säntis does at least offer some compensation.

Looking back towards Schwägalp and the Säntis from Lutertannen
It is past midday now, and I start to think about lunch. The map shows a patch of woodland just before the pass, probably the most suitable picnic site in this weather. Beyond the pass, it does not appear like there will be any more wooded sections. But now, looking back in the direction from where I have come, I am suddenly conscious of a change in the light. The blue sky of the morning has darkened, the haze has become thicker, and the surrounding mountaintops have all acquired blooms of cumulus clouds whose colour has very quickly changed from white to grey. There can be no doubting the signs: thunderstorms are getting themselves set up for the late afternoon performance. It’s probably a good thing that I am already halfway into my walk, as I would probably not have set out from Schwägalp if I had started an hour later and seen the deteriorating conditions.

Southwards, in the direction in which I am going, the sky is still blue. Getting over the pass is going to be the key; the building clouds are being attracted to the Säntis and its outliers, and will not cross to the far side of the pass before the evening, if at all. I reach the last farmhouse in the valley at just short of 1300 metres, in the middle of a wonderful carpet of white flowers. The road finally gives way to a pretty path that climbs up alongside a little stream, before reaching the wooded area below the pass. I have decided to put lunch on hold though, until I am over the pass and on my way down the far side. I love a good thunderstorm when I am safe at home, but I definitely do not like them on a mountain path. I force myself to walk slowly; putting myself “in the red” will not help. Coming out of the woods, one last view back the way I have come shows a grey-purple landscape beneath menacing, black clouds.

The last farm before the Risipass
I reach the Risipass at one o’clock, after two and a half hours’ walking. Here, I say goodbye to the hills of Appenzell and the precipices of the Säntis for good, and begin the descent into the Toggenburg valley on the pass’ southern side. And here, suddenly, there is a whole new Alpine panorama in front of me, once again seen across an Alpine-flowery foreground. It is a slightly unexpected panorama too: I had been expecting to see the distinctive peaks of the Churfirsten in front of me, but I have got my orientation wrong, and they are somewhere away to the left, hidden behind a shoulder of the hill bounding the pass on its eastern side. Instead, a whole set of unknown mountains is spread out in front of me: I do not know them and don’t have the right map to be able to identify them, but I will make closer acquaintance with them on the walk’s next leg. I am relieved to see from the signpost at the pass that it is only an hour and ten minutes down to Stein in the valley; the storms will not get me today.

A whole new panorama, looking southwards from the Risipass
Now that I am safely over the pass and once again have blue sky overhead, finding a suitable spot for lunch is back at the top of the agenda. Back at home, I had thought about continuing to the top of the Stockberg for lunch, but it would add too much time end effort, especially in this heat and with the weather deteriorating. A view would be nice though, and so would some shade. There is no lack of views, but shade is a commodity in very short supply here. About thirty metres below the pass, a small copse offers some shade, but the shady spots are all facing away from the views. But it has become so hot by now that the shade gets priority; sitting in the sun to eat is out of the question today. The heat has really got to me, I feel like I have climbed far more than 450 metres.

After a short lunch break, I set off for the hour’s descent to Stein, some 600 metres below in the valley. A gentle descent across pastureland brings me to Ahorn, the first farm on this side of the pass. Now I once again find myself cursing a hard surface underfoot, this time a steep and really unpleasant concrete road, but it’s my own fault: I have failed to see a signpost and gone off in the wrong direction. By the time I realise that I am no longer on the waymarked route, I have descended a further 200 metres and cannot be bothered to go back up again. Finally I chance upon a hiking signpost at Muggenboden, and am soon back on the planned route after a short climb.

The tiny village of Stein appears now, nestling down below in the valley bottom, a white church tower its dominant feature. It isn’t far down from here, but the path becomes quite steep and my body is really complaining now: I cannot remember ever feeling so sore, weak or tired after three and a half hour’s walking, and can only put it down to the heat which has rather spoiled the day, despite the magnificent scenery.

All the farmers of the Toggenburg valley are, quite literally, making hay while the sun shines. In every field, people are raking freshly-mown grass into neat rows, ready for collection. It’s a race against time; they know that it is likely to rain hard this evening, and the dry grass needs to be safely under shelter before that happens. As I wait for the bus in Stein, a constant procession of tractors pulling trailers laden with grass goes slowly past, and once I am in the bus, we inevitably get stuck behind them all.

The bus is packed full of schoolchildren when it arrives in Stein, and I have to stand for the ten-minute ride to Nesslau. The children are all wearing walking boots and identical caps (except that some are red and some green, so maybe there are two classes or two separate schools), and do not seem to be even remotely affected by the heat: I am ready to drop, but they are just as full of energy as they had been at 10 this morning. At Nesslau, even more school groups board the train, and so it is in a noisy atmosphere of high-pitched Swiss German conversation (very useful for me, from a learning point of view) that I end the fourth day of my walk… and hopefully the hottest!

Clouds over the Stockberg

10 May 2015

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 3, from Jakobsbad to Schwägalp

Time: 6 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 1210 metres
Height loss: 800 metres

Jakobsbad – Urnäsch – Hochalp – Spicher – Schwägalp

It’s another long journey to get from home to the start of this third leg of my walk. As the little red train of the Appenzeller Bahnen pulls into Urnäsch, I am half tempted to get off. I really should have carried on to here at the end of the previous leg, but I was tired and it was getting late, so I stopped at Jakobsbad. Now I am faced with an eextra hour and a half’s walking and 200 additional metres of height difference on top of what already looks like quite a strenuous day. I stay on the train though, and in the end it proves to be a good decision: the walk from Jakobsbad to Urnäsch is a pretty one, and I am in much better shape to enjoy it this morning that I would have been, already hot and tired, at the end of the previous stage.

I leave the station and walk past the entrance to a large old convent building, where two nuns are chatting away merrily. I climb steeply up along a lane, which very soon gives way to farm tracks and woodland paths as the way passes through a succession of copses and clearings. Signs with spiritual texts, no doubt placed by the residents of the convent, have been nailed to tree-trunks at intervals along the way. The first of these invites me to find peace in God, something which I may be have more inclined to do had he been able to arrange slightly less muddy conditions underfoot. A bit further along though, another sign advises me not to be cynical… someone must have been reading my thoughts!

It has been a very wet week in Switzerland, and the ground is gorged with water, especially in the parts where the path passes through woodland. In places, wooden planks have been laid across the boggiest bits, but these artificial aids have a sting in their tail: I step on one which has been installed on a slight downhill slope, and before I can think “Bad idea”, I have slipped and am lying flat on my back on the plank, which is covered with a thin film of mud and is as slippery as black ice. My rucksack absorbs the shock and so I am not hurt, but I suspect that I may find my sandwiches to be slightly squashed and my apple a bit bruised when I have lunch later! 

Clouds between Jakobsbad and Urnäsch
I cross a field occupied by a herd of young cows as I approach the farmhouse at Studen. The cows are a good distance away, but start advancing towards me slightly more quickly than I would have liked, so I make a not very stylish but very efficient exit under the electric fence. At the next farm, while climbing over another electric fence using two tree-trunks that have been placed there for precisely this purpose, I slip and get entangled in the wire. Luckily, the series of electric shocks that I get are just small, cow-deterring ones, and not the full-blown 240 volts that some farmers seem to favour here.

Now Urnäsch comes into view. The path descends through a series of fields and gates where I pick up another dose of Switzerland’s finest hydro-electric power… at this rate, I will be charged like a battery by the end of the walk! Signposts direct me alongside the completely unprotected railway line: if a train came along at this point, I would be able to touch it by simply stretching my arm out. Admittedly, given the slow speed at which the Appenzeller trains advance, there is not too much risk of anything dangerous happening.

Although Urnäsch did not look very big from the train, it takes me a good half an hour to cross the village from end to end, as it straggles out uninspiringly along the road. In the village square, there is a very odd sporting event going on. In what looks like one of those inflatable bouncy castles, two teams of two boys are playing football. The boys are tied to each other – and to the boundary wall of the “arena” - by strong elastic bands, which jerk them back as they try to advance into the opposing half. It seems to be some kind of attempt to create a full-sized, live version of table football, complete with a referee (unconstrained by elastic).

Eventually I reach the end of the village. Here, for the first time but most certainly not the last, I deviate from the “official” route of the Alpine Panorama Trail. From this point, the route described in the official guidebook simply follows the valley bottom, and the main road, all the way up to Schwägalp, three hours and ten minutes away according to a signpost. The guidebook even goes as far as to admit that although the riverside path is pretty, there are “not many Alpine panoramas to be seen on this stage”. I have been studying my maps though, and have identified what looks like a much more scenic and higher level alternative, which follows the eastern side of the valley over two little summits, the Hochalp and Spicher, before dropping back down to meet the official route at Schwägalp. 

By now, though, I have already been walking for two hours, it is past midday, and I wonder if I will be biting off more than I can chew by taking what is obviously a longer alternative route. The signpost tells me 2 hours and 10 minutes to Hochalp; I reckon it will probably be another three hours from there to my final destination, plus at least half an hour for lunch and other breaks. It looks tight, especially given that I have infuriatingly forgotten to write down the time of the last bus from Schwägalp, and can no longer remember if it goes at 17:35 or 18:35. I decide to go for it though… at worst, I can opt out at Hochalp and easily get back down to the road and a bus stop.

At the last house before the village finally gives way to fields, a medium-sized dog comes running out, barking furiously and making it clear that I am not welcome. Its owner calls it back from inside the house, but the dog ignores him completely and continues to yap around me. I avoid looking at the dog, try to make my hiking poles not look like weapons and back off slowly. Mind you, if I was a Swiss farm dog and my owner had decided to call me Shakira, I think I might also have a tendency to disobey his orders out of sheer revenge… Eventually, as I retreat down towards the next house, Shakira sees something more interesting in the garden and disappears. The owner asks me where the dog went, but does not bother to apologise.

Now my way leads steeply uphill across fields, crossing a looping lane two or three times. The ridgeline that I will be following is now visible, as are the rocky walls of the Säntis, up above Schwägalp at the head of the valley. As I pass by a rustic little restaurant, I think to myself that the local Subaru dealer must have a good life: practically every one of the dozen cars parked outside the restaurant is some kind of four wheel drive Subaru, and the solitary VW Golf hiding in the middle of them looks very much out of place.

I continue uphill along the edge of a wood, then continue more steeply up across a wide, boggy pasture where my feet make entertaining squelchy noises at every step. At some point though, it must have been dry enough here for a tractor, as the parallel patterns of the grass, like those of a football pitch, show that an industrial-scale mower has been over here quite recently. At the top of this mossy pasture, an elaborate system of sloping planks has been set up to enable people to cross the fence into the next field… definitely a stile with style, but also unnecessarily complicated and awkward to get over. A good example of stile over substance, in fact… Beyond the next farmhouse, the ground flattens out into a vast, grassy plain, beneath an immense pale blue sky dotted with cumulus clouds. Here, a notice instructs walkers to proceed in single file, although there would be room for hundreds to walk side by side. 

Please walk in single file, there isn't room to go two abreast...
 Another wooded section follows, as I continue to gain altitude. Coming out of the trees, I now find myself at the foot of the final climb up to Hochalp. This hill is a bit of a geological curiosity: a slabby, gritty-looking horseshoe sends two parallel, grassy ridges running steeply down towards the north. The overall shape is something like that of a coal shovel. There is no path, but the way to go is clear: straight up the left-hand side of the shovel. The way gets steeper and steeper, until I reach the last hundred metres, the steepest of all. Here, I am pleased to see the presence of a zigzagging path, which eases the gradient and makes the last bit a lot less tough than it looked from a distance. At a quarter to two, I make it to the 1530-metre summit of Hochalp. I am pleased with myself; I have done the climb almost half an hour faster than the time indicated back down in Urnäsch.

The Säntis seen from Hochalp
The view from here is absolutely stupendous, and I have to wonder how the planners of national route No. 3 could so blatantly ignore it. I can only imagine that they considered the climb to Hochalp a bit too strenuous, compared to the rest of the path. From the start of the route in Rorschach until now, all the Alpine panoramas have basically been of the same mountains: the Alpstein range, getting closer and closer. But now, suddenly, whole new mountain ranges appear as if by magic. South-westwards, through a rocky gap, are a few of the Toblerone-like Churfirsten, with which I will be making closer acquaintance during the next two stages. Further to the west, nicely framed by the posts of a fence, is a great wedge of rock which I assume to be the Speer. And right in front of me, so close now that I could almost touch it, is the massive Säntis, all vertical naked rock and snow – although the amount of snow has diminished a lot since I got my first sight of the mountain from the Kaienspitz a few weekends ago.


From the yellow signpost on the summit, I am pleasantly surprised and relieved to learn that it is only another 2 hours and 20 minutes to Schwägalp, so I will not need to rush my rather late picnic lunch. I find a comfortable grassy slope just below the summit, set my rucksack up as a backrest and lean back to enjoy the view. My sandwiches are still intact despite being fallen on earlier in the day, the sun is hot, the view is majestic… life is just as it should be.

The second little summit of the day, the flat-topped Spicher, looks very close at hand beyond a deep valley. The path appears to make straight for it, skirting above the valley. In reality though, it will prove to be quite a bit further than it looks. After a 45-minute break I set off again, heading downhill towards a little cluster of farm buildings tucked in against the hillside. The Subaru dealer seems to have been doing business up here as well: the one parked here, according to the fake number-plates on display behind the windscreen, belongs to MARLIES and HANSUELI… one could not wish for two more typical Swiss names in such a place. 

The way ahead from Hochalp
I continue downhill towards the chalets of Älpli, about 150 metres lower down than my lunch spot. Since the Spicher is the same altitude as Hochalp, give or take ten metres, I know that I will now have to climb up those 150 metres again. After all those hard-surfaced farm lanes and forest tracks, it feels good to be back on a proper mountain path again: narrow, rocky in places, traversing above steep slopes of grass. Just before I reach Älpli, some kind of deer bounds across the path in front of me, dashing off downhill into the thick forest to my right. 

The path now contours around the western rim of a deep, densely wooded and very green valley. There is a sense of utter isolation and end-of-the-worldness about the valley: no houses, no sign of any paths, no apparent way out, just trees and more trees. It looks like the décor for one of those BBC nature documentaries where a team of sweaty naturalists and wildlife cameramen go off to explore some extinct volcano crater on a remote Pacific island. Thinking of the deer that went off down there, I can imagine that the valley must be teeming with wildlife, and that it might feel quite an intimidating place for a mere human. My path twists and turns around several smaller side valleys that run down into the main one, with the result that the way to the Spicher is much longer than I would have guessed from my vantage point on top of the Hochalp.

Dense forest fills the valley below Älpli
The final climb to the Spicher looks intimidatingly steep, but thankfully the path tackles it in a rising traverse rather than going directly up the hill. There are two places here where trees have fallen across the path. I find a way around the first one easily enough, but the second tree has fallen in a particularly steep and awkward place, and can be neither climbed over nor turned. The only option is to scramble underneath it, and I find myself wishing I was a couple of feet shorter. I emerge from the obstacle muddy (again) and covered in scratches.

Beyond the Spicher, the final downhill section of the walk begins. I can judge the approximate distance left by the noise of motorcycles on the pass road far below, gradually coming closer as I lose height. I pass a group of people considerably older than myself, all armed with iPads and busily taking a mixture of botanical photos and selfies. The ground becomes marshy again, with wooden planks and boards to keep the path clear of the stickiest, wettest bits. Occasional clearings where snow still lingers draw the eye away towards the cliffs of the Säntis, more imposing than ever now that I have lost a few hundred metres of height. There is one last uphill stretch, which comes as an unwelcome surprise and involves a lot of clambering over exposed tree-roots, until finally I come out of the forest just above the top of the pass at Schwägalp. 

Schwägalp and the Säntis
Schwägalp is not the quietest place in the Alps, it must be said. The pass road is very popular with bikers of both the motorised and unmotorised kinds, and the Säntis cable car also generates a lot of traffic. But none of the bustle can detract from the vertical wall of the mountain just opposite, rising up into the sky above a foreground of green pasture. There is a restaurant at the pass, and I spend a pleasant half hour sitting there with a beer, admiring this magnificent view until it is time to go and wait for the bus.

As I wait, a black car with German number-plates pulls up beside me, and its sole occupant, a blonde-haired woman, winds down the window. I think she is going to ask me for directions, but instead she unexpectedly says “Do you want to come with me?” I ask her which way she is going. “I have to go to Germany,” she says, not very helpfully as I don’t know if Nesslau railway station and Germany are in the same direction, “but just tell me where you want to go and which way it is, and I’ll take you there.” It seems a bit odd to me: a quite elegant, solitary woman stopping to pick up a random male stranger (and a dirty, sweaty one at that) and offering to take him wherever he wants to go. Should I accept the offer? If I tell her I’m going to Venice rather than Nesslau station, will she take me there? At that moment, the bus arrives, resolving my dilemma.

It has been an excellent day’s walking, and my decision to leave the official route has been fully justified. It would be nice to stay up here overnight, and then continue tomorrow with the next stage – in fact that was my original plan. But it’s Sunday evening, and tomorrow morning I need to be in the office. No doubt I will be back sooner rather than later though.